BY TRONE DOWD
The stench coming from a garbage processing plant controlled by Royal Waste has all but destroyed the quality of life for some residents along Liberty Avenue in Jamaica, inciting action from upset elected officials, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and congregants of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral.
Last Saturday, those who have firsthand experience living next to one of three processing plants stood united for a “pray-in” at Detective Keith L. Williams Park, calling out Royal Waste for its disregard for the nearby residential area. According to residents, the company has been a consistently bad neighbor to this quiet portion of Jamaica, thanks to unbearable odors that worsen during the summer, loud trucks that have been tearing up local roadways and air pollution in dangerous proximity to the busy park.
The plant, located 168-56 Douglas Ave., is one of three waste transfer stations in the five boroughs. The Jamaica plant, together with the other two located in North Brooklyn and South Bronx, process three-quarters of the city’s trash. This accounts for 745 tons per day, equivalent to 270,000 tons a year, all coincidentally in communities of color.
A Jamaica resident who goes by the name of Lancaster moved into the neighborhood five years ago. He told the Press of Southeast Queens that he is often regretful that he purchased a house in this part of Jamaica due to the smell that gets pushed towards nearby homes.
“I wish I would have known,” Lancaster said.
He explained that the stench is not always present, as evident when he was mulling over the purchase. Impressed by the neighborhood’s aesthetics and closeness to both a park and school, the effect that the disposal has on the air was a complete surprise to him.
“When I have barbecues, I have to pray that the smell isn’t too bad,” Lancaster said.
“Imagine trying to explain that to guests.”
Lancaster said that he and many other residents are forced to keep all of their windows closed to avoid the stench from seeping into their homes.
Crystal Ervin, a resident and environmental justice advocate, said that she has been awakened in the middle of the night by the stench.
“I have been fighting this battle for my South Jamaica neighborhood for 17 years,” she said. “It’s a constant fight. This impacts so many people and we need the city to ensure the physical and environmental safety of the community. It’s not just the stench, it’s our health at stake.”
The fight to make garbage distribution more equitable throughout the five boroughs has raged on for years.
During a tour of the nearby facility organized by Greater Allen A.M.E.’s Rev. Andrew Wilkes, toxic runoff known as “leachate” could be seen pooling up on the grounds near the five-block industrial stretch. Protesters and environmental activists from Brooklyn, Southeast Queens and the Bronx complained throughout the tour, called the stench unbearable and reiterated that the odor only worsens in the summer.
“This is not simply an issue of environmental justice, it has political dimensions,” Wilkes said. “This has moral and spiritual underpinnings. We should be able to enjoy an environment without having to worry about our lungs being polluted. We want to uplift any and all solutions to this problem.”
City leaders have been looking into measures to smoothly transition away from overburdening small communities with a majority of the city’s garbage. In 2014, legislation was introduced by the City Council to enforce garbage processing equity. Councilmen Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), Danny Dromm (D-Jaskson Heights), Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) and I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) all co-sponsored the action.
“One community should not be responsible for handling such a large proportion of the city’s waste,” Miller said. “Residents in Southeast Queens continue to face unsafe and unhealthy conditions because of the many waste transfer stations near our parks, homes and schools, and we need a fair share policy that relieves us of this burden.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has also said that he wants to transition waste disposal to a more manageable zone system, making neighborhoods handle their own trash and not others. He has not made any effort to make this a reality.
There have been concerns about the safety of sanitation workers at the site for about a decade. In 2009, three workers with the S. Dahan Sewer Specialist company were killed by noxious fumes at the Jamaica waste plant after being hired by Royal to unclog a pipe at the bottom of the drywell.
“These businesses also don’t follow the labor practices that are necessary to keep these workers safe or give them the opportunity to support their families with fair wages,” Miller said.
Despite these incidents, however, Royal says that it has the community’s interests in mind every step of the way. In fact, Royal Vice President Mike Reaki responded to claims that the stench has lowered the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“Royal Waste is from and for the community,” Reaki said. “Our owners and our staff are also from this community. Ninety-five percent of our staff live locally in the community. We provide high paying, high quality union jobs with full benefits and we often hire New Yorkers who face barriers to employment. Royal Waste is tremendously invested in the well-being and vitality of the community that we call home. We operate a facility according to all regulations set forth by city, state and federal regulators. We pride ourselves on the continuous raising and improving our safety and environmental standards.”